A fatal accident at a Union County coal mine last December happened because the mine operator did not have effective safeguards to keep workers from being hit by moving equipment, federal regulators have concluded.
The accident at the Highland 9 mine killed Eli Eldridge, 34, who was from the Vicco area in Perry County but had moved to Western Kentucky for work because of the steep downturn in coal jobs in the eastern end of the state.
The U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration issued several orders to the mine after Eldridge's death aimed at improving safety.
Eldridge was a mechanic at the large underground mine, which employed more than 450 people and was operated by a subsidiary of Patriot Coal Company.
He had 15 years' experience as an underground miner, but had been at the Highland mine only nine months, according to the accident report.
Just before the accident, Eldridge had checked with other workers operating coal-hauling machines, called ram cars, about whether they needed any repairs, according to MSHA's investigative report.
One was Wesley Coots, who also had moved to Western Kentucky for a coal job and was a friend of Eldridge's, according to Tim Miller, an official with the United Mine Workers of America, which represented workers at the mine.
Coots had been a miner eight years and had been at the Highland mine a year.
Eldridge sat on the side of Coots' machine to write notes in his log book until Coots had to drive to the working face to pick up a load of coal, according to MSHA's report.
Eldridge walked away and Coots lost sight of him before driving his ram car forward about 10 feet, when he heard an unusual sound and realized the car had hit Eldridge, according to MSHA's report.
Other miners who hurried to the spot in response to Coots' yells for help saw one of Eldridge's legs sticking out from beneath the ram car. One checked and found no pulse, according to the report.
The report said that just before the accident, Eldridge had asked Coots if he was going away from the working face, and Coots said he was.
After going away from the face, however, Coots changed directions and headed toward the face, which is when he hit Eldridge, according to the report.
Miller said Coots had to back up a bit in order to line up the end of the ram car before moving forward to pick up a load of coal.
Eldridge would have known that Coots had to drive in toward the face where coal was being mined in order to load, Miller said.
Eldridge may have thought he had time to clear the haul road before Coots drove in, Miller said.
"It was a total accident" on Coots' part, Miller said.
Eldridge had a small strobe light clipped to his suspenders in the front, but it was not turned on, the report said.
MSHA said a dip in the floor also contributed to the accident. The dip caused the ram car to tilt and the front of the bed to rise, obscuring the forward vision of the operator, MSHA said.
The federal agency listed several causes of the accident, including that the Highland mine did not have safeguards, such as devices that sound a warning and shut down moving equipment if miners are in danger of being hit.
Another was that the mine did not have adequate practices on all miners wearing strobe lights to make them more visible.
The mine also did not have effective procedures to make sure all miners had a way to communicate with others on their intended activities and travel routes, nor did it have an adequate procedure for equipment operators to let others know about their intent to move equipment or change travel directions, the MSHA report said.
Highland agreed to install safety devices on coal haulers to help guard against hitting miners; improve the use of personal strobe lights; provided miners with two-way radios to improve communication; and began requiring that workers operating rubber-tired equipment sound a warning before moving in any direction, according to MSHA's report.
Patriot shut down the mine about two weeks after Eldridge's death, however.
Eldridge was one of two men killed in mine accidents in Kentucky last year, tying record-low fatality numbers in 2007 and 2013.